Monday, November 05, 2007 11/5/07-Vanderbilt and Charity

In today's excerpt--Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), one of the richest men in history with a fortune of $150 billion in today's dollars, was notorious for his lack of charity:

"Vanderbilt's Scrooge-like parsimoniousness was especially damning. ('Let them do what I have done,' he said, with all seriousness, citing his own rise from nothing, when asked to give alms to the poor.) During 1872, Mark Twain addressed Vanderbilt directly on this topic in Packard's Monthly:

" 'All I wish and urge you upon you now is that you crush out your native instincts and go and do something worthy of praise--go and do something you need not blush to see in print--do something that may rouse one solitary good example to the thousands of young men who emulate your energy and your industry; shine as one solitary grain of pure gold upon the heaped rubbish of your life. Do this, I beseech you, else through your example we shall shortly have in our midst five hundred Vanderbilts, which God Forbid. Go, oh please go, and do one worthy act. Go, boldly, grandly, nobly, and give four dollars to some great public charity. It will break your heart, no doubt; but no matter, you have but a little while to live, and it is better to die suddenly and nobly than to live a century longer the same Vanderbilt you are now.'

"But even Twain ... had to afford Vanderbilt a certain grudging respect. As [New York attorney and community leader George Templeton] Strong admitted, this basest of men possessed an instinctive and furtive genius for commercial affairs. Strong, in a letter told a friend: 'He is like some rudimentary but deadly and swift beast who knows not what he knows, but knows enough--through nature--to endure and thrive on the meat of lesser animals, of which the woods are full. [Vanderbilt], that most elemental of creatures, seems capable of great intuitive leaps-- resembling those of a jaguar--when it comes to enterprise. He is a breed apart: evolved for the sole purpose of money-getting. Either that or his is the dumbest of dumb luck lubricated--I should admit--by a great deal of elbow grease. The beast is never lazy.' Vanderbilt, on the other hand, equated both his skills and his ambition to a mania. 'I have been insane on the subject of money-making all my life,' he told a reporter. And money-make he did."

Edward J. Renehan Jr., Commodore, Basic Books, Copyright 2007 by Edward J. Renehan Jr., pp. xii-xiii.


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